December 09, 1996 12:00 PM

THE TROUBLE BEGAN WHEN BASTARD out of Carolina met Moral Media Mogul out of Georgia. First, Ted Turner’s TNT optioned and produced the TV-movie version of Dorothy Allison’s critically praised 1992 novel about a young girl shedding the stigmas of poverty, illegitimacy and her stepfather’s abuse. “We felt this was important subject matter,” TNT’s president Brad Siegel told Entertainment Weekly in November. The hour-and-a-half film, marking the directorial debut of actress Anjelica Huston and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Men Behaving Badly’s Ron Eldard and ER’s Glenne Headly, had all the earmarks of a serious artistic enterprise.

But when Turner, who has been characteristically outspoken against TV sex and violence, viewed the finished product last spring, he was shocked by its graphic content, particularly a bloody, prolonged scene in which the stepfather (Eldard) punches and rapes stepdaughter Bone (12-year-old newcomer Jena Malone). TNT dropped the program, which was subsequently picked up by Showtime (who had, ironically, already developed and dumped their own version in 1993) and will be broadcast on Sunday, Dec. 15, at 9 p.m. ET.

TNT’s decision has generated journalistic concern about network censorship, political pressure and artistic freedom. In the end, though, Carolina has to be judged on its quality rather than the importance of its subject matter. And on that basis, despite a gifted cast, it fails in nearly every respect, turning a tough, unpreachy story into sensationalistic, sadistic suds. Allison’s semiautobiographical novel is as much a protest against the label “white trash” as it is an exposé of abuse. Her hard-luck southern characters have dignity even in their desperation. Allison herself is both proudly lesbian and pro-pornography; and her gritty child heroine is defiantly unsentimental about her love-hate feelings toward family members.

In the TV version, though, Jena Malone’s character is a fragile, cowering little girl and her family a clichéd redneck cartoon. Although the screenplay closely follows the book, the effect is very different. Allison’s lyrical, evocative prose makes Bone’s resilience the heart of the story; in contrast, the film’s raw visual images of beatings, molestation and brutality overpower any other message. I wouldn’t want to ban this TV movie, but I certainly can’t recommend it.

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